Into the woods with you

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”

John Muir

Turns out the social distancing thing is easy to do at Sweetwater Wetlands Preserve.

On Monday my daughter and I must have walked a couple of miles around Gainesville’s wastewater purification facility disguised as a city park…and still didn’t cover all of its vast acreage.

It looked like there were maybe a hundred others present, but the sheer size of the preserve is such that nobody seemed in danger of passing within, um, catching distance.

Keeping six feet between humans? Easy.

But 20 feet from the gators, please. Because this virus is bad enough, losing a few fingers will really ruin your day.

Listen, if you’ve got kids at home, I can’t recommend Sweetwater strongly enough. You’ll walk the energy right out of ‘em.

Only instead of just saying “keep away from the gators, children” throw in “and the people too.”

On Tuesday we practiced our social distancing skills at O’Leno State Park. Crossing the swinging bridge freaked out the dog, but he loved the trail that follows the Santa Fe River through dense woods and palmetto scrubs to that place where the river vanishes underground.

Florida’s state parks have cancelled special events, camping, pavilion rentals and such, but as of this writing they remain open for…let’s just call it wilderness therapy. Likewise some city parks are still open for day use.

Suddenly the way most of us live our daily lives has been seriously disrupted. My son, in San Francisco, is under virtual lockdown, with parole granted only for brief trips to the grocery store.

But keeping our social distance around here doesn’t have to mean 24/7 house arrest. And as it happens, we live a community that has long invested generously in wide open spaces.

If nothing else take frequent walks around your neighborhood to avoid cabin fever.

But go a bit farther afield and you can walk for miles in the San Felasco Hammock without brushing up against another human being. Ditto the Newnans Lake Loop, near Windsor. And the Susan Wright Trail stretches for nearly 5 miles through the Prairie Creek Preserve.

To name just a few local walk-in-the-woods options.

Just remember to take water and wear good shoes.

Oh, and for you gym rats suffering from withdrawal symptoms? Try doing your spinning on a real bicycle for a change.

Gainesville is a bikable city. You can get almost anywhere via mostly neighborhood streets.

And as a side benefit, research shows that cycling can help strengthen your immune system.

I hear you, you’re afraid to share the road with cars. No problem.

The Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail is a world-class, car-free recreational treasure, and it’s more than a 30-mile round trip. If you’ve never been on it you’ve cheated yourself.

Look, we don’t know how long all of this social upending is going to last. And sticking as close to home as much as possible is our best recourse. That is especially true, of course, if you haven’t been feeling well or are starting to show symptoms. Stay home!

But these troubling times also present the opportunity to acquaint yourself with the best our region has to offer – wild spaces and bikable neighborhoods – without breaking the social distancing taboo.

Hey, Alachua County is where nature and culture meet, right? And while our culture may be under some stress right now, our nature beckons still.

The forever war

Listen, Donald Trump’s war on Iran could save hundreds of American lives. Maybe thousands.

But not against acts reprisal or terrorism. That blood letting is likely to be terrible, and we will live to regret our strategy of promiscuous drone warfare.

But it could save lives back here on the home front.

How? Because if things really go sideways with Iran, the price of oil will likely skyrocket.

Cheap gas is killing us, and we’ve been drunk on the stuff for years.

About 40,000 Americans were slaughtered in traffic last year alone. And it is a fact that the less we pay for gas the more we drive. And the more we drive the more likely we are to kill each other.

“During hard times, or when gas prices surge, people drive less: some shift to cheaper travel modes, some just stay home,” the online news service CityLab observes. “One predictable and well-documented result of big spikes in gas prices is fewer car crashes…”

Not to mention that less driving means less climate-changing carbon emissions spewing into the atmosphere.

The Union of Concerned Scientists points out: “Our personal vehicles are a major cause of global warming…cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas.”

We’ve been fighting this forever war in the Mideast for what seems like forever now – squandering our national treasure and throwing away young American lives to keep the oil spigots flowing. It’s not honor, but slavishness that makes the bloody Saudi regime our best pal. We have pledged our allegiance to Aramco.

What does “patriotism” even mean in war time these days? The Bush administration told us to go shopping while it knocked off Iraq. And thanks to all the oil we “liberated,” too many of us went shopping for gas guzzling SUVs and pickups.

That’s not patriotism. That’s self-indulgence.

To end the forever war, the ultimate act of patriotism would be to drive less, drive smaller and drive slower. Doing so would simultaneously save lives and help stave off climate change.

What might a rational homeland security strategy look like in a post-forever war America? Well, instead of spending billions on bigger highways we would be investing in transit…and then make it free as an incentive to not drive.

Rather than subsidizing suburban sprawl – as we’ve done since World War II – we would instead redesign our cities to be more walkable and bikable. Traffic calming by design saves gas and makes us more free to get around.

Here on the home front, pedestrian deaths in cities like New York and Denver are on the rise. This despite the adoption of much-touted “Vision Zero” policies.

Does that mean Vision Zero doesn’t work? No, in Norway, Oslo saw just one traffic fatality last year, thanks to a Vision Zero plan that takes itself seriously.

“The great tragedy of the American postwar development pattern is that we’ve built a world where a productive life is only possible if we do our daily travel at truly crazy, historically unprecedented speeds,” argues strongtowns.org. “These are speeds that make doing everything by car (with the attendant risk of injury or death, to yourself or others) the unavoidable ante to participating productively in society.”

To end the forever war we need to stop playing Aramco’s game and resolve to make America a civilization that doesn’t run on cheap gas.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com.

The fire next time

Growing up in the “shadow of the H Bomb” and being a teenage boy, I naturally gravitated to nuclear apocalyptic fiction.

“Fail Safe,” “Alas Babylon,” and of course “Dr. Strangelove” all conspired to feed my Cold War era paranoia.

But the most depressing “end of days” book I ever read was Nevel Shute’s “On The Beach.” It was a grinding, soul-crushing account of how the last survivors of World War III lived out their remaining days while waiting for the radiation to reach them.

“It’s not the end of the world at all,” Shute wrote. “It’s only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

And then he tacked on what amounted to mankind’s eulogy: “Maybe we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this.”

Shute’s “end of the world” scenario was set in Australia. It was the globe’s last outpost of humanity after Europe, Asia and the Americas wiped each other out in a nuclear holocaust. But the prevailing winds would ultimately spare no one, not even those who watched and waited at the ends of the earth.

I haven’t thought about “On The Beach” in years. But the inferno now raging in Australia…literally driving many refugees out of their homes and onto the beach, brought it all back.

Who knew that far from being the last outpost of humanity, Australia would turn out to be one of the first at risk? That its residents would be among the first to face, not radioactive Armageddon, but rather the deadly impact of man-made global warming.

It is a desert continent, after all. And changing weather patterns appear to be converging on that already hot and dry island as surely as Shute’s imagined radioactive wave.

But Shute knew of what he spoke, even if he got the means of delivery wrong. “No, it wasn’t an accident, I didn’t say that,” one of his characters, John Paxton, explained. “It was carefully planned, down to the tiniest mechanical and emotional detail. But it was a mistake.”

Mistakes aplenty were indeed made. Because, having escaped out from under the shadow of the H bomb, we humans proceeded to spend the ensuing years and decades spewing carbon into the atmosphere. We were warned, goodness knows, but we chose to ignore the harbingers of climate change doom.

“You could have done something with newspapers,” Shute wrote. “We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault…”

No, we opted for all of the cheap luxuries and consumer goods that our disposable, petro-sodden economy could give us. And we listened as charlatans like Donald Trump assured us that environmentalists were hysterical naysayers, and that we could have jobs or a clean environment but not both.

Have you seen the photos from Australia? As bad as the fires that have been raging in the Amazon rain forests. Worse than the conflagrations that burn large swaths of California.

But, surely, those are all just acts of nature and nothing to do with the rest of us.

“A look at the current fire map shows the whole continent of Australia ringed with flame,” reports the Daily Beast. “This is the driest continent on earth, and it is now being cooked by global warming. After the driest spring on record it has had the hottest day, with average highs across the whole country above 107 degrees.”

But nothing to see here, folks. “Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said climate concerns were being stoked by ‘raving inner-city lefties.’ Australia remains heavily committed to coal-fired power stations and has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates.”

In Shute’s novel, word of the encroaching catastrophe could not compete with all of the sweet distractions of life. “The news did not trouble her particularly,” he wrote of one character, “all news was bad, like wage demands, strikes, or war, and the wise person paid no attention to it.

“What was important was that it was a bright, sunny day; her first narcissi were in bloom, and the daffodils behind them were already showing flower buds.”

Daffodils are on fire in Australia. They will burn, or perhaps drown in the rising sea levels, elsewhere in the coming years. And we will likely continue to wallow in self-interested doubt and denial.

Perhaps because, indeed, “we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this.”

“Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen,” Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, a latter day Shute, wrote in the New York Times. “The images of the fires are a cross between ‘Mad Max’ and ‘On the Beach’.”

Survivors are literally gathering “on the beach” in Australia because everything else is on fire. Will the fire next time blaze closer to home?

Our dirt cheap water

Fifteen years is a lot of water under the bridge. And every year that water got a little dirtier and scarcer.

“Floridians in 2005 may not be facing a statewide water crisis at present, but they are certainly facing enormous challenges. They cannot afford to be complacent.”

That cautionary note appeared in a little-heeded study, “Avoiding a Water Crisis in Florida.” Its author, Lynne Holt, was a policy analyst for the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center (PURC).

It is safe to say, 15 years later, that we choose complacency. So we now live in water crisis times. Red tides, toxic algae, collapsing oyster beds, mass fish die-offs and on and on are our new normal.

Two decades into the 21st century we are still making terrible water decisions. That’s why, to cite just one egregious example, one of the world’s largest bottling companies feels entitled to suck up Florida spring water, for free, and sell it in little petroleum-based containers.

Which is why it’s worth remembering Holt’s 2005 report as we blithely row, row, row on our fragile water resources into the third decade.

“One method of curbing water use and thus reducing conflicts over water in Florida and elsewhere is the adoption of more efficient pricing and funding mechanisms to capture the real cost of supplying water,” it asserts.

That’s a polite way of saying that if Florida wants to stop treating its water like dirt we need to stop making it as cheap as dirt. We need to stop giving away our most priceless resource to anyone who cares to pump it out of the ground.

Dirt cheap water is why Big Ag hasn’t moved to drip irrigation and other less water intensive growing techniques. It’s why Nestle can sell “our” water at enormous profits while continuing to add to the world’s plastic pollution stream. It’s why millions of Floridians can pour rivers of water on their lawns (after which it runs back into our streams and wetlands laden with pesticides and fertilizers).

Why not? That water’s as cheap as dirt.

“We Americans are spoiled, we wake up in the morning and we turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cellphone service or for cable television. So we take water for granted,” Robert Glennon, a water expert at Arizona University, told Atlantic magazine.

But wait a minute. What about the poor? If we “right price” water, won’t they be deprived of this life-sustaining fluid?

No. The Atlantic article adds: “Since drinking water is a human right, experts all agree that the base amount a person needs to survive, about 15 gallons a day, should be subsidized.” It’s water squandering that needs to be priced out of the market.

What would happen if Florida right-priced water? Holt’s report recommends that the proceeds from water sales be used to replace aging and leaking water supply infrastructure, pay for water preservation and address pollution.

More importantly, right-pricing would foster a water conservation ethic among farmers, utilities, manufacturers and individual users.

“Absent pricing schemes that capture the true costs of water use, consumers will not be able to respond rationally to conservation signals,” Holt wrote.

That’s another polite way of saying that we will continue to soak our lawns, flood our fields and, yes, let entrepreneurs sell our water to the world in little plastic pollution delivery systems until we stop treating that water like dirt.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelociped.com)

Who are we anyway?

What do you think when you think about Alachua County? Aren’t we that special place “Where Nature and Culture Meet”? Aren’t we springs and prairie and forests and rolling green hills surrounding a dynamic university city?

And if we set out to build an event center, a sports palace to attract visitors, wouldn’t we want to place it where, you know, “Nature and Culture” actually meet?

Wouldn’t we want to show off the best we have to offer?

Our dynamic downtown arts scene.

Our newest and best park and the museum that celebrates what makes us innovators and inventors.

Our town-gown culture that breeds more innovation still.

Who are we anyway? What are we? We’re Gator Country set amid real gators and buffalo and so much more.

This isn’t us, is it? This is just more of the same autoAmerican landscape that you can see anywhere in Anywhere USA.

We’re really going to put our events center here? We’re going to welcome our visitors to a place where Commerce and Asphalt Meet? Is that really us?

Granted there are certain expediencies to inviting the world to our own little slice of autoAmerica.

I-75 is the perfect asphalt delivery system. It will allow our visitors to drive directly to their chain-owned hotel, attend their chosen event, eat at any number of chain-owned restaurants, shop in the big box of their choice…and then gas up and get the hell out of town. It is the autoAmerican way.

Will they even suspect that there is this amazing Innovation City just beyond sight of that asphalt delivery and departure system? Will they care? Do we even want visitors to come and see who and what we really are?

Or are we only interested in filling Interstate-adjacent beds, supporting minimum wage restaurant jobs and funneling shoppers into big boxes before we send them back to wherever they came from?

Who are we? What are we about? Are we just another way stop on the autoAmerican autobahn? Is that really the best vision Alachua County Commissioners have for our community’s future?

If so, we need commissioners with better vision. Because asphalt and commerce is a poor substitute for that magical place where Nature And Culture Meet.

Dirt cheap water

The thing about bumper stickers is that you can only put so much information on a narrow strip of adhesive plastic.

Say no to Nestle water grab. This from the conservation group Our Santa Fe River.

Nestle’s bid to take a million gallons of water a day from Ginnie Springs, on the Santa Fe River, and pour it into little plastic bottles is the literal definition of highway robbery. Aside from permit fees the company gets the water pretty much for free.

It’s almost like picking money up off the ground. Or in this case, siphoning it from deep below the aquifer.

If that water wasn’t diverted into plastic it would be nourishing the Santa Fe River.

“As water levels of the Floridan aquifer continue to drop, and the flow of the Santa Fe River continues to decline, Nestle’s false claims of sustainability fall flat.  The river is sick and in recovery,” notes OSFR on its web site.

And I’m with them so far as that goes. But here’s the thing.

We can say no to Nestle, although out politicians and regulators don’t like to say no to any corporation. But let’s say we do.

The fruit of our victory will amount to, well, a drop in the ocean.

Because Nestle is just a symptom of a much larger problem. And it is simply this.

We treat our water like dirt because our water is dirt cheap.

As the New York Times notes, most water use “regulations do nothing to address the main driver of the nation’s wanton consumption of water: its price.”

Why don’t farmers use drip irrigation? Because cheap water. Notes the Times article. “about half the 60 million acres of irrigated land in the United States use flood irrigation, just flooding the fields with water, which is about as wasteful a method as there is.” But it’s cheap.

But wait a minute. If we raise the cost of water, won’t the poor be deprived of this life giving fluid?

No, but our lawns might. It is an act of national insanity that nearly 60 percent America’s household water supply ends up being poured on the ground – back into the dirt – to keep our lawns green.

“The pricing is wrong,” reports Atlantic. “We Americans are spoiled, we wake up in the morning and we turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cellphone service or for cable television. So we take water for granted.” This from Robert Glennon, a water expert at Arizona University and author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It. “We all pay a ridiculous amount of money for the water.”

The thing is, Nestle’s get rich for nothing scheme only works if they are getting the water for, well, nothing.

If they had to pay the people of Florida, say, 30 cents for every $1 bottle of water they sell – if it were a source seller’s market – Nestle likely wouldn’t do it. Problem solved.

But if it did pay, it would create a source of revenue that could be used for water preservation and conservation.

But here’s the thing. Nestle is not an aberration. If Nestle goes away Florida will continue to vastly over-pump. To feed urban growth, to serve Big Ag’s needs. Our water is just too cheap to allow it to sit unused in an aquifer.

Do you want to stop farmers from doing this?

Right price water and they will do this.

This is the price we all pay for dirt cheap water in America.

And this.

By all means, let’s keep the bare liquid necessities affordible.

“Since drinking water is a human right, experts all agree that the base amount a person needs to survive, about 15 gallons a day, should be subsidized,” notes Atlantic.

But beyond that, let’s make our water too expensive, too precious, to treat like dirt.

“It’s the issue of how to price water for swimming pools, lawns, and agriculture that’s tricky and politically thorny,” Atlantic adds.

“From an economist’s standpoint, modern urban water shortages are almost always self-inflicted wounds” Richard Carson, economics professor University of California at San Diego.

We treat our water like dirt because our water is cheaper than dirt.

We really ought to start treating water it like it is coming out of the aquifer already bottled.

 

 

 

 

Complete 13th Street

Gainesville-UF strategic partnership priority: Complete 13th Street.

Yes, I know, 13th Street already looks finished. It cuts straight through town, north-to-south, along U.S. 441.

But that doesn’t make it a “complete street.”

Complete streets “are for everyone,” argues the urban planning group Smart Growth America. They are “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.”

If you think that’s already mission accomplished on 13th, just try navigating a wheel chair on the miserable excuse for a sidewalk between NW 3rd place and NW 4th lane…not to mention that stretch where the sidewalk simply vanishes just north of Museum Road.

Mostly 13th Street is a traffic funnel. Engineered to near interstate highway standards its wide multiple lanes facilitate the fast movement of cars and trucks at the expense of public safety. It is no coincidence that some of Gainesville’s most dangerous intersections – at Williston and Archer roads and University Avenue, to name three – are on 13th.

It is especially egregious that Gainesville’s arguably most bike-ped hostile corridor is the stretch of 13th that defines UF’s eastern border – UF harboring the city’s single largest concentration of walkers, cyclists, bus riders and scooterists.

And UF strategic plan envisions a campus that is even less car dependent than it is now. That includes making its northeast quadrant car free and running shuttles so commuters can leave their cars on the city’s outskirts.

“I’m dismayed that we have to spend the money we do on parking garages,” UF CEO Charlie Lane mused recently. “In 20 years we may be asking ‘what in the world were we thinking?'”

It’s time to ask that question right now in regard to 13th street. And if there is a single quality of life improvement project that should unite city and campus in mutual interest it is turning the length of 13th into a complete street and all that the term implies.

We know how to do it. Narrower traffic lanes, on-street bicycle lanes, better sidewalks and other “traffic calming” design standards will slow cars, save lives and, not coincidently, foster a more business friendly environment along the length of Gainesville’s transportation spine.

Reinventing 13th Street by design is a perfect project on which to expand and capitalize upon the nascent partnership between the city, UF’s Transportation Institute and the state. There’s more to the urban mobility revolution than autonomous shuttles.

And reimagining 13th starts now. On October 15th the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization will sponsor is a public workshop to solicit suggestions about how to make 13th “a safe and efficient corridor for all modes of travel.” Transforming 13th is second on the MTPO’s list of priority projects. The workshop will be held at UF’s Innovation Hub, at 747 SW 2nd Ave., from 6 to 8 p.m.

Ultimately, any MTPO recommendations need state Department of Transportation approval. But in recent years even the historically car-centric FDOT has been warming to the notion of complete streets for the sake of public safety.

“Creating Complete Streets means transportation agencies must change their approach to community roads,” says Smart Growth America, “This means that every transportation project will make the street network better and safer for drivers, transit users, pedestrians, and bicyclists—making your town a better place to live.”

It’s long past time to make completing 13th Street a priority on the town-gown list of things to do.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com)